In an attempt to protect children from viewing inappropriate material online while respecting the free-speech rights of content providers, the Washington, D.C.-based Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA) has unveiled a new rating system that will let users filter out certain kinds of web content.

The new system is the culmination of a year’s worth of consultation and research to create an internationally acceptable rating system that could be adapted to different national, cultural, and individual needs. The second part of the system, a filter that allows parents to set their own controls, will be launched in mid-2001.

“A significant inhibitor to the growth on the internet is parental concern about inappropriate material,” said Stephen Balkam, executive director of the nonprofit ICRA. “We are confident the new system will give [users] a useful tool to help them to overcome their concerns without interfering with freedom of expression.”

The Center for Democracy and Technology, which advocates public policies that advance civil liberties in using new computer and communications technologies, says it approves of the new rating system. But, because the system depends on the voluntary participation of web site operators, who are asked to rate their own content, some observers question whether the initiative will succeed.

“Historically our position has been that, because these systems are voluntary, they are toothless and unlikely to have much practical impact,” said Jim O’Halloran, director of product marketing for web filtering company N2H2 Inc.

ICRA evolved from the U.S.-based Recreational Software Advisory Council internet (RSACi) rating system. RSACi was developed in 1996 with four categories of concern: nudity, sex, language, and violence.

ICRA is a global system that has added drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and weapons to the original four ratings categories.

All of the descriptions against which sites are rated are objective, ICRA officials say. Context variables are included for the first time to distinguish sites that have educational, artistic, or medical content, and there is a new category to deal with chat rooms.

According to the ICRA web site, there are two elements to the system:

  • Web authors fill in an online questionnaire describing the content of their site in terms of what is and isn’t present. ICRA then generates a content label (a short piece of computer code) that the author adds to his or her site.

  • Users then can set their internet browser to allow or disallow access to certain web sites, based on the objective information declared in the label and the subjective preferences of the user.

“The new labeling system is more robust than the old one,” said Mary Lou Kenny, ICRA’s North American director. “The two major changes are that we’ve increased the items that we rate, adding four more to our list. Also, there is now a contextual component that allows for exemption of sites that are educational, medical, or artistic…. This can help users tell the difference between pornography and Picasso.”

The ICRA system is comparable to other types of filtering systems available to schools, Kenny said.

“It’s free, easy to use, and available to everyone,” she said. “We hope consumers will choose to use this system in homes, schools, and libraries across the country.”

The ICRA system, unlike most filtering software such as N2H2’s Bess and SurfControl’s Cyber Patrol, does not assign ratings internally, but relies instead on content providers to rate themselves honestly.

“It’s a terrific service, but it’s only as good as those [who] use it,” Kenny acknowledged. “This is a first-party system, whereas most filtering systems are third-party, meaning that an outside source does the rating. But the ICRA firmly believes in the importance of self-regulation on the internet.”

But, what’s to prevent unscrupulous users from misreporting their web sites’ content? Very little, some filtering companies would argue.

N2H2’s O’Halloran thinks there may be little incentive for companies to register themselves with ICRA.

“My question is, where is the incentive for a site to register with an organization like this?” he said. “Only if there were a groundswell of support for this type of system, then content providers would essentially be required by the market to register their site. But there’s not much evidence that shows a large portion of the market demanding this type of rating scheme.”

“It’s not 100-percent foolproof,” Kenny responded. “But it is certainly in the interest of content providers to rate themselves honestly, to avoid legal action and government intervention. Also, we conduct spot checks of various registered sites, and we accept consumer feedback on sites they feel may have been misrepresented. Users can also choose to block non-rated sites.”

A board whose membership includes some of the world’s leading internet and technology companies, such as America Online, Bell Canada, British Telecom, IBM, Microsoft, Novell, and the Bertelsmann Foundation, supports the ICRA.

In a press release, members of the group explained, “This cooperation between competitors reflects the industry’s concerns about responsible internet development.”

ICRA uses the Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS), developed by the World Wide Web Consortium, which allows labels—or “metadata”—to be associated with internet content. The system originally was designed to help parents and teachers control what children access on the internet.

To label a site, the content provider completes a questionnaire at the ICRA web site. From there, the ICRA labeling engine creates an appropriately formatted label following the PICS standard. The label is presented to the provider on screen and via eMail.

The label is then pasted to the head of the web page and transmitted every time someone calls up that particular page. A single web page, a directory, or an entire site can be labeled with a single term. According to the group, this saves the content provider from having to paste the label into every single page.

Once web sites are labeled using these “tags,” they can be read and interpreted by certain applications designed for this purpose, such as Microsoft’s Internet Explorer Content Advisor and Netscape’s NetWatch.

“If the parent or educator has Microsoft Explorer or Netscape, this function is already in their browser and there is no additional charge,” said Kenny, who added that the ICRA web site is free for anyone to access as well.

But some people wonder what good having the technology is if its user base remains small.

“Because the browsers like Netscape and Internet Explorer have made the utilization of these rating systems very straightforward—and we’ve still not seen a great level of adoption—I’m of the wait-and-see mindset,” said O’Halloran.

In the next incarnation of the ICRA ratings system, parents and educators will be given a screen with check-off boxes that allow them to pick and choose among the things they would like to have filtered out, explained Kenny.

The old labeling system had 160,000 registered web sites. Users still can access the old list of sites, Kenny explained, though these sites still might be rated using the old labeling method.

“We hope that those 160,000 sites will go back and rerate themselves using the new categories. We really encourage that,” she said.

According to ICRA, the existing RSACi labels can continue to be used in both internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator but will be phased out over time.

Links:

Internet Content Rating Association
http://www.icra.org

Center for Democracy and Technology
http://www.cdt.org

N2H2 Inc.
http://www.n2h2.com